There’ s not quite as much labor in Labor Day as there used to be. But workers who are off today can thank their hard-toiling forebears for that break.
At one point in America’s history, non-farm employees pulled average 12-hour shifts seven days a week.
And although some professions – such as many in the medical field and some factory workers – often still work long hours, the majority of modern-day employees don’t face the fatigue that staffers endured barely more than a century ago.
In the 1800s, life wasn’t easy for the average worker. A 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday wasn’t the norm. Having holidays off wasn’t expected. Taking time off for illnesses, family emergencies and vacation could render the standard employee jobless immediately.
According to the Aldrich Report – a survey of manufacturing hours taken by the federal government in 1893 by Commissioner of Labor Carroll D. Wright, for the Senate Committee on Finance, chaired by Nelson Aldrich – and the Weeks Report, prepared by Joseph Weeks as part of the Census of 1880, the average factory worker counted more than 60 hours per week.
The Economic History Association reports that both sources received criticism for flaws because of potential sample selection bias and unrepresentative regional and industrial coverage, but the findings are some of the most accurate representations available from the time period.
The U.S. Department of Interior listed a 67.1-hour workweek in 1840, compared to the U.S. Senate’s report of 68.4 hours for the same decade. By 1880, numbers dropped to 60.7 hours for the Weeks Report and 61.8 hours for the Aldrich Report.
The rise of labor unions in the late 1800s and early 1900s set the eventual course for fewer hours, higher wages and better working conditions – which in the following century were often stuffy, unsafe and unsanitary – but it wasn’t until 1894 that the federal government took a stance on the issue.
Following several strikes, such as a 10,000-employee march in 1882 from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, the infamous Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago and a 1894 boycott on the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago staged by the American Railroad Union, American leaders got to work to create a holiday honoring the nation’s workforce.
Following the Pullman protest in May, President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day – a day honoring the American workforce – into law on June 28, 1894.
Since then, the tides for working hours, wages and conditions have changed drastically.
In 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average American works approximately 44 hours per week.
Even though the number of hours employees pull on average have greatly decreased since the mid-1890s, the special day paying tribute to those who make the country prosper hasn’t.
Still a federally recognized holiday 125 years later, many businesses and organizations in Martinsville and Henry County – such as banks, doctor’s offices and schools – honor their employees’ dedication by giving them a day off.
For Henry County Public Schools, that means giving 1,180 workers a day to do as they please without checking into the classroom, main office, cafeteria, administrative office or driving a bus.
Monica Hatchett, HCPS director of communications and organizational learning, relayed that every employee works hard to support the growth and development of the division’s students and makes an important impact on their futures every day.
Having a day off can reinvigorate workers to give their best to their jobs upon returning to work.
“Labor Day is a long-standing school board holiday on our calendar to ensure that the families have time to enjoy one another over the long weekend,” Hatchett said.
As for what the faculty and staff plan to do with their Monday out of school, it varies.
“I have heard some staff members mention family gatherings or camping outings for the weekend,” Hatchett said.
Another educational institution, Patrick Henry Community College, also will take a break from campus life to honor the holiday.
The school employs 152 full-time and 85 part-time workers, Jack Hanbury, PHCC’s vice president for finance and administration said, and maintaining quality employees is the lifeblood of the college, furthering its mission to serve students and the community.
Having a day to rest, relax and recuperate often gives workers the boost they need to continue the workweek with a regenerated vigor.
“Our employees work very hard,” Hanbury said. “It is important that they have that day off to be with their families and loved ones.”
Even after a century and a quarter, it’s still important for Americans to take a day to themselves with no work schedule in sight.